The Château of Mercuès
And our three days of fun
What could be better than to be invited to a spring wedding in the southwest region of France? How does staying in a fabulous château-hotel sound to you? Throw in some good friends; fabulous food and wine for 3 days of festivities and I am sure it could not get any better! So, it was an easy decision to make; left to do were the travel arrangements. We were faced with yet another period of "grèves" (strikes) in France, gripping the country with disruptions and upon our arrival, we were not sure how smooth a trip this would turn out to be. Initially, we planned to travel from Paris to Cahors by train, but given the erratic wildcat strikes here and there, we quickly shelved that idea in favor of a rental car and driving down at our own pace. There were possible traffic concerns at the start of the journey, so we considered ourselves lucky to hit the open highways and make our way south at an even clip. In fact, driving gave us ample opportunity to admire the beautiful landscape of dramatic gorges, curious rock formations and slow moving rivers, as well as numerous beautiful villages. Largely unspoiled by the passage of time, the Lot department of France is a delight to discover and explore. However, we had a destination and a quick detour to make. The first stop was in Montcabrier, not too far from the wedding venue, and we were to visit some family who live there. Montcabrier is a quiet village nestled in the hills, filled with quaint stone homes and tiny shops. There is not much to see on a Saturday morning there, but during our short walk, we stumbled on the mayor of the village (baguette in hand, casually dressed in a t-shirt and jeans), who was happy to stop and have a brief chat with us.
The Village of Montcabrier
Town Hall (the mayor's office!)
Map of the area
After a lovely dinner of duck magret, local cheese and the most delicious strawberries - locally harvested and naturally sweet beyond belief- - all graciously prepared by our hosts, we tucked in for a great night's sleep in preparation for the next day: a visit to the local open air market in Prayssac. With our baskets brimming full of local bounty, it was time for lunch before heading out to Mercuès. Too bad for us... More strawberries, delicious cheese, local greens and more duck foie gras, isn't that terrible?
Above: Local strawberries, white asperagus and view of the Prayssac market in full action!
Mercuès is an easy 20 minute drive from Montcabrier. The signs led us to a winding road that took us through endless hairpin curves up a steep hill. The scenery seemed strangely out of step for what was to come. There were no stately homes closeby or at least buildings with any history or charm to match the proximity of the grandiose photos we had seen of the Château. On the contrary, the few houses we saw along the way were shuttered and ordinary looking. It felt empty somehow, the area void of any sign of life and not at all the pictoresque surrounding I had imagined. It almost made us question our directions. At last we arrived at the top of the hill through an open gate which led us past part of family enterprise. The handsome stone structure looked like it belonged to the Château, hanging near the front was a sign that read: "wine tasting and sales" welcoming all to the Mercuès winery. This all looked very tempting but we wisely continued up the driveway to the Château's entrance.
Spread out before us were magnificent gardens and the famous huge Lebanese Cedar Tree, planted in 1782 (the eve of the French Revolution), right at the foot of the main parking area.
As we parked in the gravel entrance to the château, a tall man appeared out of nowhere. Standing stiffly in his dark suit, he waited till we were out of the car and began to collect our belongings. Without uttering a word, he somberly gathered our baggage. I watched him struggle with my suitcase, and remembered in horror the cookbooks I bought in Paris - before the trip - and suddenly felt very guilty, especially as we climbed the many stone steps to the reception area. I looked for him but he had vanished, our suitcases with him. Once in front of the desk, we looked around us - everything was so perfect - the entrance, manicured gardens and lovely reception area, all beautifully restored and re-done in tasteful decor. It all is worthy of their membership to the prestigious "Relais & Châteaux"; copy that!
Another man behind the desk handed us our room key and a welcome packet. The room key, I might add, was an old fashioned standard key attached to the heaviest glass circle weight ever. I bet it was cut from the bottom of one of their wine bottles, sanded and engraved with the room number in gold letters. I made a wise crack about the weight: "I bet nobody goes too far with these!" I said chuckling. The tall man blinked. (Ok, something got lost there - never mind... ). We went up to our room, I looked around stunned, but not for long. There was a knock on the door. Our bags arrived and the tall man quickly placed them in the room and hurried out the door.
Our room at The Château de Mercuès
A bit about the Château de Mercuès
The glorious Château and property overlooks the Lot valley and river in the Quercy region. The Château dates back to the 13th century, but the chapel on the grounds dates back to the 7th century, under Saint Didier, the first Bishop of Cahors. It served as the official residence for the Bishops of Cahors until the separation of church and state in 1905. It survived countless battles, wars and invasions throughout the centuries but stubbornly stood through it all. Sadly, in 1980 the Château fell into disrepair and abandonment.
A man named Georges Vigouroux and his family bought the property and took on the monumental task of renovating the Château to restore it to its former glory. The Vigouroux family share a passion for winemaking since 1887. It is interesting to know that the Cahors vineyards were hit badly by "The Great French Wine Blight" in the late 19th century, when the vines were attacked by the phylloxera epidemic. The vines needed to be replanted, using a hardier variety, mostly Malbec grapes. In 1971, Vigouroux used innovative techniques, in the form of simple guyot pruning which proved very succesful. The average density in Cahors is 9,999 vines per acre, however in The Château de Mercuès vineyards, 16 465 vines per acre are planted. After the first harvest in 1987, Château de Mercuès became one of few ‘Cru hotels’ where guests could fully take part in the harvest and vinification process.
The hotel's wine cellar
Staying in this 13th century château overlooking the Lot valley is a truly unique experience, an authentic immersion in the history of France during the Middle Ages. Built on a rocky promontory, this was the summer residence of the Counts and Bishops of Cahors for seven centuries. The chef in residence, Julien Poisot, draws his inspiration from local producers, and has won an international reputation for working wonders with black Lalbenque truffles and Quercy lamb. The wine list includes the great Malbec wines and vintages produced in the château’s very own wine cellars.
A wild dinner party
This all added to our excitement on the first night there, when we found out there was dinner planned in the main dining room. We started out in the courtyard outside. It was still chilly but soon enough came some pink champagne: a marvelous "côtes du Lot IGP Bellefleur de Haute-Serre" – which is a Malbec Brut rosé. It was very good, so good it took the chill right out of the air and had us seated inside in no time at all! Then came the tasting menu: we started with wonderful asparagus, prepared perfectly with a hint of a citrus sauce. At this point some of our other friends arrived just in time for the fish course: roasted John Dory. There was a flurry of activity to seat them and fill their wine glasses. Not to mention everyone getting up, kiss-kiss (on both cheeks), warm salutations, disrupting the order of the service in progress.
Selecting wines at our dinner table. Note: the infamous light fixture at the end of the table...
Dinners like these are like a well rehearsed ballet. Servers arrive and place plates in sync, in front of each guest. The wine is then poured. Before servers disperse, one of them stands at the end of the table and announces (with great flourish) the dish just served. We are bid "bonne continuation" before the staff disappear. Therefore, a continuous coming and going of guests completely disrupts the performance. Just before the main course of "magret de canard", another couple arrived in a tizzy, just after a 2 and some hour drive from the train station in Toulouse. By then, it was very late. The "magret" was half-heartedly suggested to Madame. "Oh non", she replied wearily. "Wine please? Especially wine, yes and... do you have something, uh, small?" Then Monsieur: "Could I have some wine please? And (pointing towards the other guests), "I'll take whatever they are having". Madame was reminded the chef was soon to close the kitchen; asparagus and a cheese plate was suggested. Monsieur got whatever they were serving, I think. We finished our magret, the cheese course came. The servers had a moment of confusion as to who had and who had not. "Could we get more wine please?" came the familiar refrain. Servers scurried past the low hanging light fixture at the end of the table. A friend seated on my right leaned in. "Watch", she said. "I bet someone will run right into it before we the night is through". Sure enough, in all the flurry, one of the servers hurried off...smack into the light fixture...causing it to swing furiously back and forth. Things were getting blurry but spirits were up as only old friends reunited can do. I watched the dessert, cheese and some of the latecomers' last minute choices come and go. At last the bill came - ouch? - However, as it is often in France, it wasn't nearly as bad as it could have been in New York... "Could we please have more wine?"
Staying at the Château de Mercuès is a unique experience. The history and breathtaking beauty of the surrounding area only enhanced our stay. We appreciated the valiant effort made by the staff to keep up with our very large party (and all our comings and goings). I wish there were more hotels like this one that really understand how to leave guests appreciate and just be in the moment. It sometimes feels like hotel staff most everywhere else is more interested in making a forceful impression than leaving you to be impressed, in your own time.